At least 10 people were killed and more than 20 others injured Friday when al-Shabab extremists attacked a town that sits on the Somali side of the border with Ethiopia, according to witnesses and officials.
“The militants launched a surprise dawn attack on the town of Aato in the Bakol region of Somalia this morning [Friday], triggering fierce gun battles with a joint Ethiopian paramilitary Liyu police officers and Somali forces,” witnesses who requested anonymity fearing reprisals told VOA.
One of the witnesses said the militant fighters began their attack using car bombs and mortar shells, then used guns as they fought the opposing forces.
At the time of the attack, members of Somalia’s parliament were in the town to distribute food aid sent from Mogadishu to drought-affected residents. It was not clear if the government delegation was the target of the al-Shabab attack.
“Heavily armed militants, using mortar shells and machine guns mounted on vehicles attacked the town, confronting joint Somali and Ethiopian forces in the streets of the town in a battle that ensued for three hours,” Aden Mohamed Nor, a Somali lawmaker, in the town during the attack, told VOA by phone.
Nor said he saw the dead bodies of more than 10 combatants from both sides, and that al-Shabab took most of its dead and wounded fighters as they were repulsed.
“I saw the dead bodies of more than 10 mainly al-Shabab militants. Based on our intelligence info, the militants lost many fighters in the battle and loaded their dead and wounded onto armored vehicles they apparently seized during previous attacks on African Union Troops’ bases in Somalia.” Nor said.
Earlier Friday, at least two people were killed and eight others injured in a bomb blast that killed a regional minister in the town of Baidoa, about 250 kilometers from the capital, Mogadishu.
Those killed in the blast were Somalia’s southwestern regional state Minister of Justice Sheikh Hassan Ibrahim and his son, witnesses and security officials said. At least eight other people, including the minister’s second son, were injured.
Security officials said an apparent remote-controlled bomb went off as the minister and his sons left a mosque, where they had performed the Friday congregational prayers.
Aato was Shabab’s entry to Ethiopia
Aato, a town in the Bakol region of Somalia, is one of three Bakol towns, along with Yeed and Washaago, that the militants attacked last week as they crossed into the Afdher zone of Ethiopia’s Somali state.
Somali military officials put the number of al-Shabab fighters who crossed the border into Ethiopia at almost 500 fighters. U.S. assessments suggest they may have penetrated as much as 150 kilometers into Ethiopia before being stopped.
"Our brave soldiers foiled a plan al-Shabab was working on for at least a year, and defeated the fighters they sent to Ethiopia within three days,” Mustafe Omer, the president of Ethiopia’s Somali region, told reporters.
Omar also said Ethiopia is planning to create a “security buffer zone” aimed at countering al-Shabab attacks.
“We cannot merely watch an open border where the militants mobilize themselves on the other side [Somalia] to attack us,” he said. “We must prevent such a threat and not wait until they come to our border.”
U.S. officials and some analysts worry that in addition to Ethiopia, which al-Shabab had previously attacked in 2013 and 2014, al-Shabab also plans to expand in operations in Kenya, Djibouti and beyond.
“The militants have been enjoying [freedom] in their movements and military mobilizations because of the absence of Somali National Army offensives targeting their hideouts and the areas they still control,” said Abdisalam Yusuf Guled, the former deputy head of the Somali National Intelligence and Security Agency.
“So, they [al-Shabab militants] have got the choice to attack wherever they want and whenever they want,” he said. “To me, it [Ethiopia] was a rare attack but always predictable.”
VOA National Security Correspondent Jeff Seldin contributed to this report.